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Posts Tagged ‘Zoe Saldana’

‘You know, there is no sequel. There’s only the one story. You can have another picture about further adventures among the monkeys, and it can be an exciting film, but creatively there is no film.’ – Charlton Heston, about Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Crikey, you wait thirteen years for an Avatar sequel and then… well, only one comes along, but look at the size of the thing. This is the kind of big studio release where the sheer scale of the movie forms one of the main planks of the publicity strategy. Three hours long! A budget of knocking on for $500 million! Filmed using specially-developed technology! It needs to be one of the most successful films in history just to stand a chance of breaking even!

Yes, it’s Avatar: The Way of Water, directed once again by Jim Cameron (with any of Cameron’s projects, ‘directed’ always feels like such an inadequate phrase – perhaps ‘willed into existence’ would be better), which at the time of writing is probably inescapable at every cinema near you. Cameron, as ever a man not short on self-belief, seems to think his little baby is going to do the business, thus opening the door for Avatar 4 and 5 a few years down the line (Avatar 3 is already in the pipeline, so cancel any holiday plans for next Christmas). Even the gargantuan length of thing may indeed be part of his cunning plan: people can apparently ‘see the scene they missed [due to going to the bathroom] when they come see [the film] again.’

Well, we carefully prepared for our visit to watch Way of Water by going onto a low-fluid intake regime and draining all our bodily cavities during the commercials (this wasn’t terribly popular with the people in the next row, but at least we weren’t crunching popcorn all the way through). We’d sat down and rewatched the first film not long ago, which turned out to be a wise move as not many concessions are made to anyone who isn’t up to speed on what happened the first time around.

So: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now a full-time feline Smurf living on the paradise moon of Pandora with his partner (Zoe Saldana) and their gaggle of offspring. (Saldana’s character does seem prone to going off on one, so it is appropriate she has spent the gap between films having kittens.) Scholars of the dark arts of Hollywood will be amused to note that Worthington and Saldana now share top billing, rather like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno, presumably because Worthington hasn’t really made a notable film in a decade while Saldana is an established member of the Marvel ensemble.

Needless to say, a serpent finds its way into this particular Eden with the return of those nasty humans, whose dying planet is apparently not quite dead yet. The humans now want to come to Pandora and colonise it, not just strip it of its natural resources, and here to help them is a new incarnation of Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the bad guy from the first film (who, yes, is technically dead, but the loophole Cameron finds to revive him is acceptable enough).

Quaritch’s vendetta against the Sully family eventually forces Jake into moving house, and they all go off and live with some island-dwelling Na’vi in a part of the planet which looks rather like Hawaii: the leaders of their hosts are played by Kate Winslet and Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis. Slowly the forest-dwelling visitors come to understand how to be one with the water and understand the wisdom of the oceans (or, to put it another way, hold their breath, swim, and fish). Needless to say, there impressive CGI beasties with those bio-USB ports for them to ride around on, too. It will perhaps not entirely surprise you if I reveal that the Sully’s pelagic idyll does not endure, for Quaritch and the other heartless exploiters of the planet eventually show up for the big third-act set pieces and climax…

You know, it’s as easy to be snotty about the new Avatar as it was the first one, for these are not subtle or complicated films, and they have an earnestness about them which is not particularly fashionable these days. The stories themselves are really not very distinctive; they exist as a visual experience more than anything else. This one is as pleasing to look at as the original, although the ‘weird alien ecology of Pandora’ element is perhaps suffering from diminishing returns, probably due to the marine setting – many Terran fish look weird, so weird alien fish are that bit less striking.

Either way, while Cameron may see himself as a visionary and an innovative artist, it’s the sequences with the full-auto gunfire and things blowing up that really pay the rent in this movie – I was getting quite restive by the point the bad guys showed up near the end, but the ensuing battle is tremendously well-executed on all kinds of levels, even if it (and the climax of the film) do feel a bit overlong.

Then again, what is overlong in this context? ‘The Way of Water has… no ending,’ says one character in the hushed tones which many people use quite a lot in this film, and it certainly feels that way while you’re watching it. If you subscribe to Cameron’s belief that the visual and sensory experience of Avatar is the main reason to see it, then you probably won’t care whether there’s enough story there to support three-hours-plus of screen time. If you think that beautiful CGI should be there to service a solid story, on the other hand, you will probably conclude that Avatar: The Way of Water is very slow in parts, sometimes repetitive (‘I can’t believe I’m tied up again!’ complains one character near the end), and doesn’t have particularly interesting characters.

Jake, for example, has lost the tension between his human and Na’vi identities which was central to the first film, and Cameron can’t find anything as interesting to replace it with: he’s just a stern, frowny dad most of the time. Something similar happens to Neytiri. Their kids are a bit interchangeable as well, with the possible exception of the one played by Sigourney Weaver, who clearly has a Special Destiny. The one character with the potential to be interesting is the new version of Quaritch, who faces a similar choice to the one Jake did in the first film – but as he is essentially a two-dimensional villain, this isn’t really explored. Most of the bad guys are lucky to make it into two dimensions; the same goes for most of the humans – although Jermaine Clement manages to make a tiny bit of an impression as a conflicted scientist.

Of course, beyond their visual appeal and adventure storylines, the Avatar movies work on another level, as environmental parables. The snippy thing to say at this point would be that James Cameron has spent thirteen years and $500 million making a film which presents the astonishing revelation that hunting whales is bad, something which Leonard Nimoy managed to communicate at least as entertainingly in Star Trek IV, in two-thirds of the time and for 5% of the budget. All right, yes, the film is very persuasive (and there’s a not-entirely surprising nod to Moby-Dick at one point), but… the sci-fi presentation of the whales here is mawkish and twee in a way that the ecological ideas of the first film usually weren’t. Having done his bit for the rainforests in Avatar 1, and now whales in Avatar 2, one wonders what Cameron has left up his sleeve for the next three episodes – I predict the Na’vi will reveal themselves as space Wombles and teach the humans the value of recycling.

I enjoyed watching the first Avatar again because it turned out to be a film with some interesting ideas embedded in its storytelling, and the resonances with Aliens were fascinating. My joke ahead of seeing Way of Water was that it was going to be another visit to Cameron’s back catalogue – watery setting? Kate Winslet? This was going to be Avatar meets Titanic. Well, rather to my surprise it turned out I was right, in several respects – but I should say that for me, Titanic was a rather pedestrian romance elevated by some terrific special effects, in terms of ideas it’s rather vacuous. Watching The Way of Water I was reminded of the Charlton Heston quote we opened with. It’s a good-looking film, often very entertaining, but there are no new ideas here, nothing that needed to be said, and certainly not in such a grandiose way. I’m curious to see if the other sequels get made, but even if they are I suspect it will all be more of the same.

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There are lots of things I haven’t done since 2009, but the one that we should concern ourselves with particularly today is watching James Cameron’s Avatar. I think this is mainly because the film is such a big old beast, but there may also be an element of – well, faint disdain, I suppose. I remember watching it and thinking ‘yeah, this is a decent enough fantasy blockbuster, but I don’t quite get what all the fuss is about’. I still don’t, to be honest, and thirteen years on, sequel or not, claims that it was the future of cinema look to have been rather optimistic – that was all to do with the 3D, an effect which I’ve never much cared for.

Nevertheless, there is that even more substantial sequel nearly upon us, with at least one more set to follow even if it flops. If the new episode does well, Cameron has promised – or threatened us with – at least four sequels he’ll direct personally, and then an unspecified number of future episodes to be handled by other people. As ever, you can’t accuse James Cameron of a lack of self-belief.

Then again, we were discussing the whole question of ‘the most successful film in history’ at work the other day. Currently the title is held by Avatar or Avengers: Endgame, depending on what you think of that slightly sneaky trick where Cameron’s film was re-released in China for a couple of weeks just to make another $200 million or so and reclaim the title. Before that it was Titanic (it’s that man again), before that Jurassic Park, before that E.T., before that Star Wars, and so on… you don’t have to go very far back before the title reverts to Gone with the Wind, but I digress.

The interesting thing is that nearly everyone you meet seems to have seen Titanic, whereas asking if anyone had seen either of the most recent films resulted in a lot of head-shaking and blank looks. This is probably to do with the list being based on box-office gross rather than actual ticket sales (which means that inflation is a factor – Gone with the Wind is still on top if you go by numbers of tickets sold), and maybe also has something to do with people going to see the same film multiple times (I will confess to watching Endgame twice myself).

No-one doubts the continuing popularity of the Marvel franchise, but it is curious that a few of these list-topping films almost seem to have melted into the ether somewhat. People of the right age are nostalgic for E.T., I suppose, and the same factor probably explains some of the success of the more recent Jurassic Park films, but the long wait for the Avatar sequel does mean the world of the film hasn’t expanded since it initially came out. Doing the sequel creates the kind of narrative space where fandom makes a home for itself; the fictional universe of Alien only really exploded in popularity with the release of the first sequel there, too (it’s that man again). It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens to Avatar – not least because Avatar and Aliens have a peculiar similarity to each other.

Both films start with a rather despondent, damaged protagonist, surveying a dead-end future on a grim, corporate Earth of the future. In Avatar‘s case this is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, who Cameron openly presents as a warrior looking for a cause. Perhaps this comes along when he is recruited to replace his dead twin brother on a mission to Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri system – his DNA is the most important factor in his recruitment, as the job will involve having his consciousness projected into the body of a specially-grown replicant of one of the intelligent natives of the planet (the avatar of the title).

Corporations are busy exploiting the vast mineral resources of Pandora, but meeting with increasing resistance from these natives, the Na’vi. Chief scientist on the project Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is all for doing research and finding a way to live in peace – she is less than delighted to have someone she considers a trigger-happy jarhead joining her team – while security chief Quaritch (Stephen Lang) sees no prospect of co-existence and wants Sully to act as, essentially, a spy, learning about the natives, particularly their weaknesses. In return he will see to it that Sully gets the expensive spinal repair operation that will allow him to lead a more normal life back home.

This sounds good to Sully, until he comes to appreciate the natural beauty of Pandora and the value of the Na’vi culture (regular readers may suspect the dreaded words ‘the Important Things in Life’ are drawing close to this review), especially as he finds himself making a close personal connection to Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). But which set of loyalties will prevail when the chips are down…?

There are lots of things that Avatar is not, and the most obvious one is subtle – the story is straight-forward, the characters are drawn in pretty broad strokes, and the message of the film may as well be flashed up onto the screen in large letters at regular intervals. A month or so before the film even came out over here I found myself writing a fairly mean-spirited parody of it, about what would really happen if a bunch of elves with bows and arrows tried taking on enemies armed with near-future technology. But, and I think this should not be disregarded, when I actually came to watch the movie I found myself actually getting quite invested in the story and letting my emotions be manipulated by Cameron in exactly the way he wanted. People may have been lured to see the movie by the promise of its 3D effects, but they ended up paying it attention because they cared about the story.

And watching it again now, it’s a rather more interesting film than seemed to be the case at the time. Naturally it’s a very proficiently-made film, with both the human and the Pandoran environments persuasively realised, at least on a superficial level (I still don’t buy this ‘brilliantly designed alien ecosystem’ idea – how exactly did everything end up evolving those USB cables in their hair and ears? How come the Na’vi are the only vertebrates on the planet who don’t have six limbs? And let’s not get started on the floating mountains), and no-one has ever accused Cameron of not being able to put together a first-rate action sequence. The film also manages to assimilate a wide range of visual and cultural cues (everything from Vietnam movies to Mesoamerican culture) into a largely coherent whole. But beneath all of this is a very competent demonstration of how to use science fiction as a way of realising a metaphor.

It’s there in one of the core ideas of the film, that of the avatars themselves – the notion of ‘going native’ becoming literally the case. It’s also there in the concept of the entire planet functioning as a single entity (which Sully manages to rouse and get on his side when it really matters during the climactic battle). Serious scientists have proposed what is usually called the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that the entire biosphere of Earth can be viewed as a single organism; Cameron finds a way to incorporate this into the plot in a dramatically interesting and accessible way.

The one element of Avatar that struck me as – well, slightly amusing, to be honest, back in 2009 was the climax, in which a human in a powered exoskeleton must fight hand-to-hand against an enraged female alien whose family has come under sustained attack. It’s basically the climax of Aliens, but flipped, of course; I thought it had something to say about how Cameron’s career had progressed, and maybe the genre as well.

Watching the film again I noticed the sheer number of resonances and connections between Aliens and Avatar. There’s Sigourney Weaver’s presence, obviously; Michael Biehn was at one point considered to play Quaritch (a part which eventually went to Stephen Lang, whom Cameron remembered from an unsuccessful audition for… well, guess). Giovanni Ribisi’s slimy corporate executive is clearly a close cousin to Paul Reiser’s character. It’s marines against aliens in both films.

But it goes deeper. Aliens is about an encounter with a hideous alien ecology, one which seeks to consume and exploit human biological tissue. The situation is simple: exterminate or be exterminated. The planet in Aliens is a grim and inhospitable wasteland, of course, totally unlike Pandora – a lush and verdant world teeming with life. The ecology in Avatar is a much more welcoming and benevolent system, capable of accommodating and aiding its human visitors. Here the implacable exploiters and consumers are the human beings themselves. The two films mirror and complement each other in a weirdly comprehensive way, but it’s noticeable that while the aliens and their worlds are totally different, there’s very little to choose from between Quaritch and his men and Hicks and the marine squad.

It’s an interesting effect, and I’ve no idea how conscious of it James Cameron was when making the film – whatever the merits or flaws of the sequel, it’s hard to imagine it containing a similar element. I still don’t think Avatar is perfect, but you can hardly hold it responsible for all those terrible 3D-ified movies that followed it. The question of whether or not it really deserves to be the most successful film of time is ultimately a fatuous one; what matters is that it is a vivid and persuasive adventure, not a story told with the subtlest of brush-strokes, but well-told all the same.

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It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

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Any gambler, whether professional or recreational, would be in awe of the run of luck enjoyed by Marvel Studios since 2008. These people have released film after film in the notoriously unpredictable superhero genre, only to be met with ever-increasing popularity and financial reward. They have attempted what looked like the impossible, in the form of a fully-connected, open-ended series-of-series, and not only seen it work, but expand to include a growing number of TV programmes and other spin-offs. You get the impression, almost, that the top people at Marvel have become intent on pushing their luck to see just how far it will go.

This could be one reason why, with relatively major characters like Doctor Strange still untapped, Marvel have chosen to make their latest original release an adaptation of an obscure comic book featuring a selection of characters virtually unknown to anyone but dedicated fans of the genre. The result is Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (just to compound the boldness of this gamble, Gunn is the director of the bravura-icky horror film Slither and the deeply twisted superhero satire Super).

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Central to the action is Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child in the late 1980s and who has risen to become a minor-league space pirate in a wild and wacky cosmos. A mysterious orb comes into Peter’s possession, which is his bad luck as it is also being sought by powerful cosmic forces: principally the genocidal alien warlord Ronan (Lee Pace), a sometime ally of Thanos (the behind-the-scenes villain in The Avengers). Peter finds himself pursued by Ronan’s renegade enforcer Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the unlikely bounty-hunting duo of uplifted procyonid Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and tree of few words Groot (the great Vin Diesel). The four of them are packed off to prison where they make the acquaintance of monomaniacal psychotic Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

The ill-matched quintet hit upon a plan to get rich by selling the orb to enigmatic alien the Collector (Benicio del Toro), little realising that Ronan is still in pursuit and plans to use its cosmic powers to devastate a large chunk of the galaxy. Does this disparate band of thieves, killers, lunatics and imbeciles have it in them to actually become heroes…?

It is quite difficult to overstate just what a departure Guardians of the Galaxy is from the last few Marvel Studios movies. It’s their first non-sequel in three years, for one thing, and there is notably less connective tissue to other projects – much has been made in certain circles of the presence of Josh Brolin as Thanos, but this isn’t much more than a cameo appearance to keep the character on the radar. There are only highly oblique references to other movies in the series and even the obligatory post-credits scene is telling a joke rather than trailing a future film (for all that it features a notable Marvel character unseen in movies for a number of decades).

Then again, perhaps all this is fortuitous from Marvel’s point of view, given that it’s their first release since the departure of Edgar Wright from next year’s Ant-Man amidst what sounds like some bad feeling. There was much speculation that Wright’s vision had been deemed to be too far removed from the house style of the other Marvel films, which some – myself included – took to be confirmation that maintaining the massively profitable Marvel brand had taken precedence over making genuinely interesting, creative films.

Ant-Man is still looking like a troubled project for various reasons, but in its own way Guardians of the Galaxy delivers a mighty rebuttal to any suggestion that Marvel are simply opting to play it safe when it comes to their movies: for, readers, Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely bonkers.

The film opens with a genuinely moving sequence depicting a youthful Peter’s final moments with his dying mother, before blasting off into space and jumping forward to the present day. Here we see Star-Lord on a hostile alien world, apparently intent on a serious search for something – until he pops on a vintage walkman and proceeds to bust some funky moves across the surface of the planet. This is closely followed by a lavish, FX-slathered action sequence.

This generally sums the film up: moments of apparently sincere emotion jostle with full-blown space opera pyrotechnics and absurd comedy. Gunn has cast Bradley Cooper as a raccoon and Vin Diesel as a tree, and those characters are every bit as preposterous as they sound. As you can probably tell, this is by no means intended to be a serious drama, but it is highly-accomplished entertainment.

The plot itself – a struggle for control of an apocalyptic McGuffin – is not exactly innovative, and you can probably predict the team’s trajectory from misfit outcasts to responsible defenders of liberty yourself. Certainly the climax, which has about three different battles going on simultaneously at one point, is done very much by-the-book for this sort of film and seems in no hurry to conclude itself, and the presence of a remarkable supporting cast (including Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou and Peter Serafinowicz) can only do so much to cover for the familiar nature of much of the story.

What really lifts the film and makes it work, other than its comedic elements and a revelatory, star-making performance from Chris Pratt, is the decision to give Star-Lord his walkman. This allows Gunn to soundtrack the film with a selection of rousing, feel-good tunes from the 70s and early 80s that add tremendously to its cheery, freewheeling atmosphere: Guardians of the Galaxy has a sense of fun about it that’s incredibly infectious and almost impossible to resist.

Once again, Marvel are probably looking at a massive hit (and a sequel has already been announced, to say nothing of various other spin-offs and crossovers) – if these guys had been visiting a casino, they would surely be being politely asked to leave town by now. This is a deeply atypical Marvel movie, and certainly by no means perfect, but as a piece of entertainment it’s incredibly difficult not to like.

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So, to recap: didn’t like the 2009 Star Trek movie very much. Or, to put it another way, I enjoyed it most the first time I saw it, which was dubbed into Russian and lacking in subtitles. Looked nice, rattled along, but it didn’t really work on any level other than as an SF action spectacular, and I had serious issues with the way it opted to honour and ground itself in the rich heritage of Star Trek history by casually obliterating most of that history in one fell not-especially-coherent swoop. But, as usual, I was in the minority, the box office kerchinged to the tune of $385 million, and four years on here we are with the next offering from director JJ Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness.

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There’s not a lot of darkness initially on display as we find ourselves on a primary-hued planet where our heroes are engaging in a spot of surreptitious geological intervention. This segment is colourful and frantic but mainly seems to be here to permit the inclusion of an effects sequence where the Enterprise rises from the depths of an ocean (why on earth is it down there in the first place? Even Scotty complains that this is a ridiculous idea), although I suppose it also launches some of the character plotlines which run through the rest of the film.

Kirk (Chris Pine) saves the life of Spock (Zachary Quinto), rather against his will, mainly because by doing so he breaches the Prime Directive. Ructions ensue at Starfleet Command, but are curtailed by a terrorist attack on London. It turns out that the culprit is an enigmatic rogue Starfleet officer, named (it says here) John Harrison – he is played, quite as well as you might expect, by Cumbersome Bandersnatch from Sherlock. Not content with blowing up London and Noel Clarke, Harrison has a go at blowing up the top brass of Starfleet as well, then – before you can say nuqDaq ‘oH puchpa”e’ – transports himself off to the Klingon planet Qo’noS.

Thirsty for vengeance, even though some members of his own crew have deep reservations, Kirk accepts the mission of carrying out a retaliatory strike against Harrison. But can the young captain put his desire for revenge aside in the name of real justice? And is there more to their mysterious, almost-superhuman adversary than meets the eye?

If you liked the 2009 Star Trek movie, you’ll almost certainly like this one too, because it has all the same virtues: it looks sumptuous, the actors give it everything they’ve got, and the story barrels along energetically enough. There is even a bit of a topical moral quandary for the characters to wrestle with, which is a welcome improvement. I have to say, though, that I think the plot this time around is perhaps just a little too convoluted for its own good: much of it is powered by the interplay between two separate villains, and occasionally it’s not completely clear when they’re working in concert and when they’re actually in conflict with each other. I’m not going to flatly state that the plot doesn’t make sense: but I do think the film doesn’t quite work hard enough to show what the sense of it is.

On the whole the movie seems rather more interested in illustrating the main and fundamental difference between the new Star Trek universe and the one it replaced: specifically, that in nu-Trek people wear more hats. It’s true: we see Kirk and Spock turning up for various functions wearing peaked caps, while one of the new uniform designs unveiled here put me rather in mind of staff officers in the Imperial Navy of Emperor Palpatine. Even the Klingons wear hats in the new universe – well, helmets, anyway, though these do not completely obscure the fact that they have mysteriously got their cranial ridges back a few decades earlier than they did in the real universe.

For me it just added to the sense that this somehow isn’t real Star Trek – quite apart from the general aesthetic, there’s a subtle suggestion that the Federation still has a market-based economy, for one thing – and this is at its strongest when we consider the main characters of the film. Never mind that most of them don’t even look very much like their originals, they don’t behave or interact in a remotely similar fashion. Pine’s Kirk is an irresponsible wild man with none of the charm or charisma of William Shatner’s version, nu-Uhura’s importance has been boosted to the point where she’s arguably superceded McCoy as a lead character, and so on. Even the ones who are particularly well-played – and Simon Pegg makes the most of some good scenes as Scotty – aren’t recognisable as the same characters. Things get even more bizarre when it comes to the other characters who get their first nu-Trek outing in this film: not only do they behave totally differently, but their accents have changed and one is a completely different ethnicity.

Despite all this, the film stays quite watchable as long as it sticks to its own terms of reference. However, as the climax approaches… well, one of the predictions I made after seeing the 2009 movie was that this new iteration of the franchise would be condemned to endlessly revisit and reinterpret old characters and stories in order to justify its existence. And so it proves here, as Abrams and his writers have the sheer brass neck to revisit and reinterpret some of the Trek movie series’ finest and most memorable moments. They stuff it up; they honestly stuff it up very badly. True, there’s a physical confrontation at the end of the movie which is brilliantly staged and will caress the pleasure centres of any genuine Trekkie – but this didn’t make up for the moments which had me literally snorting with derision: it was like watching a home-movie remake of an Oscar winner.

Still, I expect this movie will do at least as well as the last one, and further instalments will doubtless follow. But I suspect these will do no more than attempt to recycle past glories in same manner as Star Trek Into Darkness. The starship Enterprise is travelling in circles: attractive circles, energetic circles, well-crafted circles, yes, but still circles. At the moment this is a franchise which is boldly going nowhere new.

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When is a universe a star? The question is surely relevant to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 redo of the mighty Star Trek phenomenon, a look at which I’ve been promising myself for ages now. The present time seems as auspicious as any, with the sequel due upon us in a matter of days, and Abrams recently anointed (possibly from a poisoned chalice, if that isn’t stretching a metaphor too far) as the director of the first Disney Star Wars movie.

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The circumstances in which I first saw the 2009 Star Trek have a bearing on my attitude to it. I saw it at a picturehouse in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, at what felt like a frankly unreasonably early hour on a Sunday morning (I believe I had been at a nightclub the previous evening). I was accompanied by my then-wife, which was fortunate as the movie was, as usual, in Russian, and my grasp of the language didn’t extend much beyond counting fruit, so as a native speaker she could at least explain the finer points of the plot (or so I hoped).

Anyway, we sat down to watch it and – with the odd reservation – I was rather impressed by what I saw. I could not, in all honesty, follow all the convolutions of the story, but obviously I have since caught up. It opens with a starship investigating an anomalous phenomenon in space, only to be confronted by an enormous vessel of Romulan origin – but Romulus in the future. The captain (Eric Bana) is intent on locating the famed Ambassador Spock, with whom he clearly has a bone to pick, and doesn’t care who he blows up in order to get to him.

Well, the first officer of the Federation ship has to sacrifice his own life in order to secure the escape of the rest of the surviving crew, which would probably have come as a shock to long-time Trekkies as he is revealed to be Captain Kirk’s dad, who never previously died that way. The time-travelling Romulans have, in short, changed the history of both Kirk and the Federation.

This acts as a marvellous get-out for scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, allowing them to jiggle about the established history of all the classic Star Trek characters without being accused of riding roughshod over continuity (well… we’ll come back to that). So we meet a slightly different Kirk, who’s more of a bad-boy maverick with a chequered past, and follow his enlistment into Starfleet, his first encounters with Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and the rest, and the eventual showdown with those vengeful Romulans. The original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) pops up briefly too, as if to give some sort of official imprimatur to the whole undertaking.

Well, in Russian, I thought it looked rather marvellous – Abrams has come up with a new and convincing aesthetic for the Star Trek universe (even if the engineering deck of the Enterprise now looks like a brewery, for no apparent reason), and – provided you can see past the lens flare – it’s a beautiful-looking movie. However, I have to say that every time since that I have watched this film, I’ve liked it a little bit less than before.

This is not to say that I think this is an outright badly-made film, because it obviously isn’t – I will happily have it on the background while I’m doing something else, because the story is sort-of coherent and interesting, it looks good, and there are some well-executed sequences along the way. It’s a pretty good SF action blockbuster. I just don’t think it does Star Trek any favours: in fact, I would say it’s the biggest retrograde step in the history of the franchise.

Now, as regular readers will know, my hearts may belong to Doctor Who, but Star Trek – certainly selected bits of it – can have one of my lungs without my complaining in the slightest. I don’t think I’ve missed more than two or three episodes of any of the series, although to be honest by the time Voyager and Enterprise came along it was more out of a sense of obligation than any sense that this was vibrant, innovative and exciting SF.

Why do I like Star Trek? Two main reasons, I think – firstly, in its better incarnations, Trek has never been afraid to tackle some fairly challenging ethical and philosophical issues – I’ve heard it argued that all true SF is an extended attempt to define what it means to be human, and this is certainly true of the best of Trek. The latter series may have dropped the ball somewhat in terms of breaking new ground in this area, but that shouldn’t detract from the achievements of the earlier shows.

Secondly – and I admit this is much more geeky – I like the Star Trek universe very much. All right, so it isn’t the most subtly-developed fictional universe in history, bits of it are quite repetitive and in some ways it can be outright absurd, but it’s mostly coherent, and it looks like it would be a nice place to visit (neither of which you could strictly say about the Doctor Who universe). For me, one of the great attractions of Star Trek prior to 2009 was that, in a sense, the ongoing star of all of the series and movies was the universe itself.

What the 2009 movie seems to represent, though, is an announcement that Star Trek is not fundamentally about its own universe any more. It now fundamentally seems to be about one particular set of well-known characters – Kirk, Spock, et al – with everything else being up for grabs as suits the requirements of the story.

Hence the structure and central conceit of this movie. It would surely have been much simpler to just reboot the franchise from scratch with the classic Enterprise crew coming together for the first time, but this would inevitably have meant clashes with established continuity and a negative reaction from the established fanbase, whom Paramount clearly want on-board with the new series. So we get the rather laborious device of villains from the ‘established’ universe travelling back to create a new timeline where Abrams and company can do what they want: what they want, so far as I can tell, is to have their cake and eat it, seeing as their objective appears to be to establish an unbreakable connection to the old continuity without their being bound by it in the slightest.

It seems strange to show your respect for an established continuity by largely obliterating it, but this is what the movie essentially does. A hand-wave is slipped in explaining that the actions of Bana’s character have created an ‘alternative timeline’, but this is not how temporal mechanics works in the Trek universe and the writers should be aware of that. If you travel back in time and start changing things in Star Trek, you don’t create a new parallel timeline, you replace the original one – this idea is central to the plots of several of the best pieces of Trek, such as City at the Edge of Forever and the movie First Contact. Basically, the 2009 movie, as a direct result of trying to keep long-term fans on board, takes the vast majority of existing Star Trek and throws it in the bin, storywise. You would think this would be rather counter-productive, but the feedback I’ve seen from Trek fandom has been mostly positive, which genuinely surprises me.

The movie’s preoccupation with jiggling its own continuity about means there’s not much room in the plot for anything else. Well, there’s a narrative thread for Spock, and another one for Kirk – both examples of our old friend the character-driven story – but the film completely shies away from any deeper questions. As I said, this is a good-looking SF action movie with a peculiarly convoluted backstory, but nothing more demanding or challenging than that.

It’s not impossible to reinvent a plot-driven series as a character-driven one – sorry, it would feel contrived if I didn’t mention Doctor Who at this point – but to do so at the same time you completely reboot the continuity begs the question of just what, if anything, is left of the original when you’re finished. And in my experience, whenever anyone attempts this kind of alt-timeline reboot of an existing set of characters, the post-reboot need to show that this really is still the same series results in endless new takes on old stories and situations, rather than anything genuinely original.

And so it seems to be the case with the ‘new’ Star Trek: the comic series based on the new movie largely consists of rejigglings of episodes from the original TV series, while in the forthcoming movie the big question everyone seems to be asking is who Benedict Cumberbatch’s character will turn out to be – Khan or Gary Mitchell? There’s a thin line between paying respect to continuity, and being smothered by it. Never mind that the new version of Star Trek seems to have kept many of the minor details of the original but none of the spirit – what’s more important is that it doesn’t seem to have anywhere new to go as a result. I’ll be going to see the new movie, of course, but my long-term prognosis for the franchise is not a very positive one: to me it looks very much like what’s left of Star Trek will eat itself.

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Vengeance is ridiculous, more like. I remember when the word ‘prequel’ was new-minted and interesting – these days, it seems like nearly every mainstream movie out there is a remake, a sequel, prequel, a reboot or a ‘re-imagining’. And yet none of these words are quite right for this movie, which nevertheless feels terribly familiar. I fear we will have to call Colombiana a re-jiggling.

This riotously silly and overwrought action movie is brought to us courtesy of co-producer/writer Luc Besson and his favoured proxy du jour, Olivier Megaton. When Besson’s last movie came out I made various cracks about how formulaic and repetitive his output has become, with the immediate addendum that the movie in question was actually a real and positive departure for him. Colombiana is very much in the same vein as the rest of his English-language output these day (put it this way, for a producer whose company logo features a lot of dolphins and fairies, there’s an awful lot of full-auto action and cranial splatter in Besson’s movies).

Opening in a Colombia which is depicted in a not-at-all stereotyped fashion, we meet Don Fabio and Don Luis, a couple of cocaine-dealing drug barons. After they declare undying friendship it comes as no surprise when Don Luis has Don Fabio and his entire family blown away (the reasons why are not made entirely clear, but it’s hardly out-of-character). But Don Luis’s guys have made a mistake in sparing Don Fabio’s young daughter, Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg), as she does a runner and takes refuge with her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) in Chicago. When Uncle Emilio asks what she wants to be when she grows up, Cataleya shyly reveals that she used to want to be Xena: Warrior Princess (a particularly impressive ambition when you consider this scene is set three years before the character was created) but now she wants to be a hired killer. Pausing only to shoot up some passing traffic, Uncle Emilio agrees to support his niece in her chosen career. As you would, obviously.

Many years pass and the now-grown Cataleya (Jason Statham – no, only kidding, it’s Zoe Saldana from The Smurfs 3D Avatar) is keeping herself busy sneaking into jailhouses to assassinate prisoners in custody and feeding other bad guys to their own pet sharks. Her problem is that Don Luis has dropped out of sight, courtesy of the CIA, and by leaving her mark on the bodies of all these dead guys she’s hoping to get his attention. Unfortunately the FBI are also taking an interest (not entirely surprisingly given she seems to be offing someone every couple of weeks), and the special agent in command (Lennie James) is closing in on her…

Well, what can you say about Colombiana? Cripes. As Besson connoisseurs will already have twigged, the plot is in large part a retread of that of Leon, albeit considerably extended and with a very different ending. Leon is a genuinely great movie, almost certainly the high-point of Besson’s career, and the similarities here are so close sometimes that Colombiana never really establishes its own identity.

Part of the problem is that Besson himself is a much better director than the people he retains to do that job nowadays – not only is Olivier Megaton no Luc Besson, he isn’t even really a Louis Leterrier (one of his predecessors as a Besson protege). He can’t direct a fight scene to save his life, for one thing, his constant cutting and camera movement completely obscuring what the combatants are actually doing to each other. Perhaps a name change to Olivier Milliton may be in order.

That said, the first act of this movie is vivid and exciting and even unexpectedly moving in places, but unfortunately it’s all downhill from this point. I fear much of the problem lies with Zoe Saldana as the central character: she doesn’t seem to have either the charisma or the acting chops to convince – scenes where she has to display raw, uncontrolled grief just seem slightly amusing. There’s also the fact that this is a film about a woman who’s really seriously messed up, horribly brutalised by childhood trauma and trapped in a cycle of violence as a result. This is quite a dark core for a movie, but it never really comes to grips with it, nor does it seem to want to, even when the plot sort of demands it.

Instead we just get lashings of the usual frothy and excessive Besson nonsense, although in a slightly grittier style than in some movies. The story itself is not great this time, though, and the film-makers have to do the equivalent of popping the bonnet and whacking it with a spade to keep it going at at least one point in the proceedings. You also wonder if Besson and co-scripter Robert Mark Kamen actually bother to read their scripts back before issuing them – one priceless moment has the chief evil henchman making a big speech to his minions, telling them how supernaturally stealthy and unpredictably subtle Cataleya is in her assassination technique, which is immediately followed by her firing a rocket launcher at them.

I was trying to explain the output of Besson and EuropaCorp to my mother while we were watching The Transporter together (don’t ask) and she asked if it was a brand rather like Hammer horror – and it seems to me she was pretty close to the truth there. In both cases we’re talking about a very distinctive house style and heavy reuse of the same plot elements and cast members. I’m a Hammer fan and a Besson fan, and the fact these movies are formulaic doesn’t bother me at all – it’s a bit like the blues or punk rock, originality isn’t essential as long as the people involved take it seriously and have real commitment.

I enjoyed Colombiana rather less than I have most of Besson’s output, mainly because it’s not quite up to scratch when it comes to script, performances, or direction: everyone involved seems to be on autopilot. The shadows of other better Besson movies hang over it more heavily than usual, too. Still, look on the bright side: no doubt there’ll be another very similar movie from the same people along in nine months or a year and there’s every chance that one will see them back on form. Or, to put it another way, better Luc next time, I hope…

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